Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley agreed last week to reverse an earlier order and unseal the record of a six-year-old lawsuit involving the historic Whitney Bank building on South Carrollton Avenue. The ruling grants a June motion filed by Verite News to make the record public, claiming Medley’s September 2022 order to seal the full case violated the U.S. and Louisiana constitutions.

The former bank building has been the focus of a yearslong legal battle between owner Tommy Ngo and tenant Nidal Jaber, a local real estate investor with a litigious history. Jaber is represented by former judge and two-time mayoral candidate Michael Bagneris.

At Friday’s hearing, Medley said she didn’t seal the record to prevent the public from accessing it but to protect it. Someone had been altering the record by taking physical copies of filings without permission, and entering others without authorization, she said. 

The judge instructed Bagneris, the news organization’s attorney Caleb Didriksen, and Clarence Roby, who represents the Clerk of Civil District Court, to negotiate language for an order that would preserve the integrity of the more than 370 documents that make up the case while allowing them to remain publicly accessible.

Didriksen said he sent a proposed draft this week to Bagneris and Roby that would enable only the parties and their attorneys to access the physical filings but make the electronic record available to the public. He said he is waiting for a response and expects to present something to Medley next week.

The underlying lawsuit was filed in 2017 and involves a deal inked nearly a decade ago. Jaber and a business partner, under their co-owned company, Carrollton & Oak, LLC, signed a lease for the Whitney in 2014 with an option to purchase, according to court records. Jaber later took over the company and sued Ngo, the building’s owner, claiming he attempted to illegally evict him, among other allegations, according to court documents obtained by Verite News and interviews with some of the parties involved.

Ngo denied those claims. He said Jaber fell behind on rent dozens of times and that it was Jaber who broke the lease when he failed to pay a promissory note of more than $700,000.

In May of last year, Medley ruled in favor of Jaber and ordered Ngo to pay his tenant $6.4 million in damages. As a result, the Ngos declared bankruptcy and were forced to begin liquidating  all of their assets, including the Whitney building.

Four months later, Medley ordered the entire record sealed and “removed from the view of the public domain.”

Built in 1921, the three-story stone Whitney building is considered one of the finest examples of the Beaux Arts style of architecture in New Orleans, similar to the Supreme Court building in the French Quarter and the old post office at Lafayette Square, according to a report from the New Orleans Historic Districts Landmark Commission which designated the building as a landmark in 2010.

The property has two commercial spaces on the first floor, six residential units on the second and third, and is located in one of the city’s most desirable neighborhoods. And yet the property has floundered as the legal case has dragged on. The last business to operate in the building was a restaurant which closed in 2022, while the other units have been empty for years. 

Though Medley indicated early on during Friday’s hearing that she would grant the motion to unseal, the proceedings were nevertheless contentious. Both Bagneris and Medley criticized Verite News’ reporting on the matter. (An error in a previous story they identified during the hearing was immediately corrected.) 

The hearing began with Medley confiscating the cellphones of everyone in the courtroom after she said someone attempted to sneak in voice recording devices. She said the news organization’s mission is to report on vulnerable populations, then slammed it for attacking a “minority” court and claimed it accused her of “impropriety.” Negative media reports in the past have resulted in her receiving death threats, she said.

Bagneris also accused Verite News of making personal attacks against him, and said he was particularly offended by references in its coverage to a lawsuit he filed last year against the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. (David Francis, Verite News’ executive director, was president of the Jazz Fest board at the time. His tenure on the board has since ended.) In that case, Bagneris claimed that as a past president of the nonprofit board he was entitled to and denied dozens of free tickets to Jazz Fest, in addition to discounted posters, free parking, and access to a private lounge, among other perks.

An Orleans Parish judge initially ruled in favor of Bagneris, but that decision was later overturned by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Verite News raised the issue because Bagneris had asked the court to seal the record in that case due to “private, sensitive subject matter” that “should be protected from public scrutiny.” The Times-Picayune successfully moved to have it unsealed, asserting that the “matter is of significant public concern throughout the New Orleans Metropolitan area.”

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Before coming to Verite, Richard A. Webster spent the past two and a half years as a member of ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. He investigated allegations of abuse against the Jefferson Parish...